SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea will allow a civic group to contact North Korea over help in fighting malaria, the first government approval on cross-border civilian exchanges since North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January 2016, officials said Friday.
The announcement is a sign that the liberal government led by new President Moon Jae-in is trying to restart stalled civilian aid and exchange programs as a way to improve strained ties with the rival North. Moon's conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, hadn't endorsed any civilian contacts since the North's fourth nuclear test.
Seoul's Unification Ministry said the Seoul-based Korean Sharing Movement would be allowed to communicate with North Korea to discuss how to deal with malaria in North Korea.
"While the new government maintains a stance of firmly responding to North Korean provocations like missile launches, it's also clear that the current severance in ties between the South and North isn't ideal for stabilizing the situation in the Korean Peninsula," ministry spokeswoman Lee Eugene said.
The civic group said it will contact North Korea via email to try to provide North Korea with insecticides, diagnostic reagent kits and mosquito repellants and nets. Group officials said they last sent anti-malaria supplies to North Korea in 2011.
Despite the lack of South Korean assistance, North Korea has in recent years reported declining cases of malaria largely thanks to anti-malaria aid programs by international organizations. According to World Health Organization records, North Korea had 21,850 malaria cases in 2012, but 7,010 cases in 2015.
The presence of malaria in North Korea's southern regions also poses a health problem for South Koreans as malaria-carrying mosquitoes fly southward across the countries' heavily fortified border.
Since taking office earlier in May, Moon's government has said it will flexibly evaluate expanding civilian exchange with North Korea. But many analysts say Moon won't likely push for any major rapprochement projects because North Korea has gone too far on its nuclear program.
North Korea conducted two ballistic missile test-launches since Moon's May 10 inauguration. It's pushing to build a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the continental U.S., and as part of the goal the North carried out two nuclear tests last year — in January and September.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.